Unionized Philadelphia Gas Works employees have been against the proposed sale of the utility since it was announced earlier this year.
On June 19, they made their reasons known clearly — and loudly — during a 90-minute rally outside City Hall. Speakers called Mayor Michael Nutter’s plan to sell the city-owned utility to a New England company dangerous, a betrayal of employees, fiscally unsound and just plain dumb.
Gas Workers Local 686 president Keith Holmes described the proposed sale as “the easy way out” of the city’s financial problems.
Why would the city sell off the best asset it has, Holmes asked. Besides that, he said, customers’ bills will rise and customer safety will be compromised because he expects many PGW workers to be replaced by workers who are not as well-trained or professional.
“Why would you jeopardize the safety of the citizens of Philadelphia just to make a few dollars?” he asked. “That’s crazy.”
A spokesman for the administration’s team that’s handling the sale said the rally crossed the line by trying to scare people. PGW will still need the same skilled employees, said Kirk Dorn. “It would be foolish not to use a trained workforce,” he said.
Holmes said the workers in front of him at the rally won’t be sure of their pensions.
“I challenge them to show anything in writing that our pensions are guaranteed,” he said.
Among the many union and civic organization speakers at the rally was former Mayor John Street, who told union workers to “Just Say No” to Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposed $1.86 billion sale of PGW to Connecticut-based UIL Holdings Inc.
Street, who Holmes said oversaw a turnaround at PGW during his administration, said there is a difference between a utility owned by the public and one owned by a company “whose main goal is to make money.”
He said all the promises UIL is making to maintain programs for the poor and elderly, to guarantee workers’ pensions, not raise rates and operate safely are “campaigning.” What will UIL’s managers say when they don’t do those things, Street asked and then answered, “We were campaigning then.”
A smart lawyer and a good accountant can make any deal look good, Street said. Similarly, he added, a smart lawyer and good accountant can get out of any deal.
Dorn said PGW is now in good financial shape — and is valuable enough that a company wants to buy it. The city wants to sell it at peak value
“On every level, this sale makes sense,” he said.
City Councilwoman Marian Tasco, who also is the gas commission chairwoman, told the workers the Nutter administration has given City Council only eight weeks to look at the deal, a notion she scoffed at.
“We’re going to take our time,” she said. She said council, which must approve the sale, has not even listed hearings yet on the deal. Tasco said council members want to look at all the information.
City Councilman Dennis O’Brien called the gas works a strategic asset and added council had to be diligent in considering selling it.
“What’s the rush?” legislative candidate Mike Driscoll asked the crowd to much applause.
Later June 19, Tasco reiterated that council will not be pushed into scheduling hearings or otherwise making a decision on the sale, which also must be approved by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission. Council members adjourned for the summer last Thursday, and will not meet again until Sept. 11.
Dorn said the administration wanted council to make a decision this session, but now members will get a chance to hear the views of the sale’s proponents and opponents. ••